Derek Ridgers has spent 40 years photographing some of the most characterful people in British society. And we don’t mean eccentric aristocrats. Derek has followed some of the UK’s most prolific sub-cultures, from punks to mods, to skin heads and ravers in the deepest darkest clubs. We find out more about the places his photography took him to and the man behind the camera.
What first drew you to capturing outsiders?
I’m not exactly sure but it definitely became a compulsion for a while. I didn’t know this then [but I’ve come to understand in the years since] that it was a vicarious thing. I was mostly photographing people I either wanted to be or people I wanted to be with.
Do you yourself identify as an outsider?
I would describe myself more of an observer than an outsider. With a fixation to record what I’m seeing. But I’ve always thought that my perspective was essentially one of being on the outside looking in, so I’m certainly an outsider in that sense.
I would describe myself more of an observer than an outsider. With a fixation to record what I’m seeing.
How important do you think subculture is? What effect does it have on society?
I think subcultures are very important. Otherwise we’d all be the same, wouldn’t we? But if you’re simply talking about youth subcultures, I’m less certain. They seem to have thrived in the past, in this country, when society as a whole was experiencing some sort of turmoil. But in other European countries, where they don’t seem to have such obvious, clearly defined youth subcultures, I’m not sure they’re any the worse off for it. So I’m not entirely sure.
Did you have to work hard to be ‘accepted’ by the groups of people you shot?
Not really, no. I’ve always tried to be polite and my interest is always genuine and I think people quickly pick up on that.
But I was also very naive when I was a young. I assumed everyone was basically decent. Now I’m older, I know that this isn’t so. I was extremely lucky at times. If I knew then what I know now, there are certainly some groups of people I probably would not have chosen to photograph.
Do you think subcultures still exist?
Youth subcultures do definitely still exist but not in the same, clearly-defined, obvious-to-everyone type of way that they once did.
Do you think we’ve become more conservative, more label-shy?
Probably more conservative and without doubt more homogenous than we were in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Everyone is either clearly for or against everything these days. Social media leaves very little room for nuance.
What message [if any] do you want people to take away from your work?
I don’t really have a message. I am not the story. I see my work as being very functional. I want my photographs and the people shown in them to tell their own story and I have no desire to corral or direct.
My photographs are simply moments in time. In a “this is what happened then” way.
Do you have a preference for black and white over colour photography?
Not for my own work, no. But I certainly prefer to look at black and white photography. I have a very small collection of other photographers work and only one of those is in colour [a photograph of Marilyn Monroe on the beach, taken during her final photo shoot]. So I guess it would have to be black and white.
We’re thrilled to be selling two of your books [The Dark Carnival & Photographs]. You’ve released a number of books over the years. Do you have plans to release more in the near future?
A good friend – the award winning book designer Danny Flynn – is going to publish a book of my Nick Cave photographs. He’s a big Nick Cave fan. That one will be out in the Spring.
But really, my focus right now is on the photo zine rather than the photo book. After my monograph ‘Derek Ridgers – Photographs’ got published in 2018, I rather felt that my work here was done. It had been my life-long ambition to do a book like that. And I wasn’t really sure where I could go next.
Since then, I’ve done a couple of zines and I have plans for a few more in 2022. I love the democratic nature of the photo zine. They don’t cost a fortune, you can produce one almost on a whim and they don’t have to be The Big Idea. They can be about very small ideas too. I love that approach. I have a great many small ideas.
Final question: dark or light 👻
Well, without light there can be no photography so it would have to be light for me. Doesn’t everyone say this?
OK one more… maybe this question comes from the producer in me but… how do model releases work from images you shot years ago? I’m guessing people partying in clubs at 3am are unlikely to sign paperwork?!
This is a very good question and one that I haven’t ever come to any proper conclusions about.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s I didn’t use a model release at all. Towards the middle of the ‘90s I started using them but, in a club environment, I wasn’t too sure if they would ever stand up legally anyway. People could say it was too dark or they were drunk and they didn’t properly read what they were signing. So really, I don’t think the model release is much use in those sorts of situations at all.
Great talking to you. Thanks Derek.